Menopause is normal – and so are female bodies

holiday tattoosYesterday was national menopause day  – accompanied by a slew of press articles, many bossily telling us how to ‘sail through’ this phase of life as if nothing were happening.  The transitions going on in our bodies are often referred to as ‘symptoms’ that need to be ‘treated’. The assumption behind this medicalised approach, presumably, is that there is something wrong with us, that we are ill. But menopause is no more an illness than menstruation, pregnancy, childbirth or breast-feeding.

In fact, all of these phases are just some of the normal parts of a life being human, adult and female. Half the human population goes through menopause – if we are lucky to live long enough – and the transition can last up to 12 years. Menopause is a normal part of being human.

I don’t mean to underplay the difficulties some of us experience with the physical changes happening to us; effects such as insomnia, hot flushes, mood swings and memory loss can cause us great distress. And they often come at a time of other significant exeriences, such as parenting teenagers, children leaving home or losing elderly relatives.

But I would argue that the distress around the physical aspects of this stage in life is made worse when society as a whole views women’s bodies as something ‘other’. The prevailing world view is that the uncomfortable, sometimes messy, and painful aspects of having a female body are things that should be hidden from view and not spoken about.

In some cultures and in our own until quite recently, some of these issues were literally taboos. Even now in 2019 eyebrows might rise when a woman speaks openly at work, for example, about having a ‘menopausal moment’. The mention of this normal human experience that effects women of all classes, religions and ethnicities still makes many people feel uncomfortable. It’s a sign that our society still views male as ‘normal’ and everything else as ‘not the norm’.

If we needed any persuasion of this, have a read of Caroline Criado Perez’s book Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, which has done a huge service in exposing the high price women pay because their physical reality is invisible in the data used in everything from the design of crash-test dummies and police stab vests to medical drug testing and urban planning.

The danger is that as well as sex bias in the world at large, we women also internalise it. I am hopeful that the attitudes around some of women’s natural physical cycles are changing. Young women now seem to be freer from the shame that was associated with menstruation in my mother’s and grandmother’s days, for example.  And there is a chance – through initiatives such as national menopause day – that more women will feel freer to talk about their menopauses too.

Channel 4 last week launched its first menopause policy supporting employees experiencing difficulties such as hot flushes, anxiety and fatigue, giving women access to flexible working arrangements and bringing in menopause awareness sessions for human resources staff and managers.

In the yoga world, there is a growing body of experience and research into a holistic approach to travelling through menopause.  Yoga elder Judith Lasater told me some years ago she did actually ‘sail through’ her menopause with the help of yoga and meditation. As I go through my own menopause journey, I’ll be posting about some of the yoga tools that I find helpful, for example cooling breath practices, yoga nidra, and the deep rest offered by restorative yoga. And I’d be interested to hear from your experiences too.

I will bring all these together in September 2020, when I will be running a special weekend retreat Yoga Self-Care for Women. It will focus on ways yoga can support us through the various challenges of being embodied females – including but not only menopause – in a down-to-earth and practical way. If you’d like to know more, please get in touch.

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